My senior year of college, needing some more liberal arts credits, I signed up for a philosophy/religion class that sounded interesting (I’ve since forgotten almost everything about it). The class was one of those you take in your first year just to get out of the way, filled with bright-eyed kids making eager speeches before class about how awesome it is to be pledging such-and-such fraternity. Ugh.
But the material was fascinating. One book we read was Theological-Political Treatise by Baruch de Spinoza. Spinoza was a Dutch Jew of Portuguese Sephardic descent who was born in November, 1632, and excommunicated from Judaism in July, 1656. What?! YES! He was excommunicated. For spouting heretical beliefs as a 23-YEAR-OLD. Twenty-three! When I was 23, I still legitimately thought it was OK to paste blacklight posters on my bedroom ceiling.
Spinoza at 23 was provoking his rabbi to say things like: “We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within [six feet] of him, or read anything composed or written by him.”
Spinoza is arguably the most famous person excommunicated from Judaism; I fell in love with him immediately. I mean, how can you not love a guy that says:
Every man should embrace [dogmas] that he, being the best judge of himself, feels will do most to strengthen him in love of justice.
Nothing can be so accurately stated as to be incapable of distortion by misrepresentation.
The Sacred Books were not the work of a single writer, nor were they written for a people of a single age; they were written by a number of men of different character and different generations over a period of time which, taking them all into account, will be found to extend to about two thousand years, and perhaps much longer.
You can now maybe see why he was excommunicated. But for me, a 21-year-old kid (and Jewish at that) who was just learning what it meant to question everything, Spinoza was like bacon-wrapped macaroni-and-cheese on a stick. Omnomnom.
When I heard that the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company was producing a play about Spinoza, I jumped all over it. I saw it this past Sunday and was not disappointed. Fresh off another Iveys win (the Minnesota-specific equivalent of the Tony Awards), the MJTC consistently produces top quality shows. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t seen very many, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the two I have seen, and I’ve heard great things about many others.
The play is called New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656. It’s a clunky title, yeah. But that’s just about the only clunky thing about it.
It’s not a biopic; it doesn’t focus on Spinoza’s whole life–just the trial in which he was banished from Judaism. It’s also heady as fuck. Now, I don’t mean to scare you away; but be warned that this is not light entertainment. Much of the dialogue I recognized as ideas from Theological-Political Treatise, and I’m sure there was plenty more from Ethics, his magnum opus, that I missed. (Wasn’t assigned it in college → haven’t read it.) It’s basically a philosophy text repackaged as a play. Though kudos to playwright David Ives; he manages to break up the heavy stuff with enough humor and wit that it never feels like a lecture.
And seriously, instead of seeing that new Keanu Reeves movie this weekend, do yourself a favor and see New Jerusalem. (Or actually do both, because John Wick looks sweet.)
The acting is also top-notch: Michael Torsch is dynamic as Spinoza, Skyler Nowinski (this week’s Who the Folk?!) displays some impressive comedic timing as Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (that name!), and the rest of the cast is equally good at turning a densely packed script into enjoyable theatre.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the totally unnerving choice this show makes to leave the gallery lights on for almost the entire play. I first thought was a mistake, but then realized it wasn’t. Attending plays is usually nice in that you can pick your nose in the dark without anyone seeing… Not this play. This play forces everyone in attendance to judge Spinoza for themselves. In full view of everyone else.
And my bias is with Spinoza, but I won’t fault you for siding with those on the other side; what’s nice is that there isn’t a clear right answer.
New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 is playing now through November 9th.
Performances are at Hillcrest Center Theatre, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul, MN 55116.
Wednesdays at 7:30 pm,
Thursdays at 7:30 pm,
Saturdays at 8:00 pm,
Sundays at 1:00 pm.
To purchase tickets call 651-647-4315 or use MJTC’s online order form.